London should have seen Peter Sellars’ take on György Ligeti’s only opera in 1999, when the production he had unveiled at the Salzburg festival two years earlier was due to come to Covent Garden. But the then newly renovated Royal Opera House was still having technical teething problems and the show was cancelled. We’ve finally seen it now, though, more or less: the semi-staging that Sellars has devised for the London Symphony Orchestra’s performances with Simon Rattle follows the same 20-year-old line, setting Le Grand Macabre in a world of nuclear catastrophe.
After the Salzburg production, for which Ligeti made the total revision of the score that’s now definitive, the composer publicly repudiated the reading of his stage work as a post-Chernobyl parable. Two decades on, Sellars, however, has stuck to his approach. But with the stage strewn with drums of radioactive waste, characters wearing white coats or decontamination suits and backed by video footage of nuclear power stations and mushroom clouds, demonstrations against Trident and survivors sifting through the devastation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the whole thing seems muddled. Is this a critique of nuclear power or of nuclear weapons, or is it just saying, in a kneejerk way, that everything “nuclear” is bad?
None of this helps the dramatic coherence of Le Grand Macabre either. The production by La Fura dels Baus staged at ENO seven years ago suggested the score had lost its subversive edge. Nothing in this performance contradicts that; in fact, it undermines what dramatic coherence there is, while the po-faced sermonising suffocates the anarchic black humour that is such a vital ingredient. From the grand macabre himself, Nekrotzar, who arrives in Breughelland to bring an end to everything but is too drunk to do his job properly, to the lovers Amando and Amanda, too wrapped up in each other to notice that anything apocalyptic is happening at all, everybody in the opera is a cartoon character. Turning them into nuclear operatives, besuited apparatchiks and victims adds nothing.
Musically, though, the performance under Rattle is superb. From the opening toccata played on car horns which parodies the canzona from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, to the radiant passacaglia that supports the final scene, everything in Ligeti’s score is heard more vividly than it could ever be in an opera house, and the playing of the LSO is astoundingly good. So, too, are most of the solo performances – from Pavlo Hunka’s lugubrious Nekrotzar and Peter Hoare’s drink-sodden Piet the Pot, Frode Olsen and Heidi Melton as Astradamors and Mescalina the couple whose relationship is conducted entirely in S&M terms, to Ronnita Miller and Elizabeth Watts as the young lovers.
Only Audrey Luna as Gepopo, the chief of police, does not make the most of her coloratura nonsense aria. It’s normally one of the show-stopping moments, but then Sellars has Luna sing from a hospital bed, complete with one of his trademark drips. As too often in this production, the tired old message has to come first.